Saving seeds is a science, an art, and a valuable skill for any preparedness-minded person.
Even for those with small-scale backyard gardens, learning how to save seed increases your food security by reducing your reliance on outside sources.
Table of contents
Why Seed Saving is Important
First, food security, which I’ve already mentioned above.
Second, and related to the first, is agricultural biodiversity. Agrobiodiversity, as it’s also known is essential to a healthy, nutritionally robust, and sustainable food supply.
Yet, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 75% of the global food supply can be traced back to just 12 plants and five animal species.
As far as genetic diversity goes, those are dismal numbers.
Think of seed saving as a backup to the global food chain. With that in mind, here are 27 things I’ve learned about seed saving over the years.
Tips to Save Seeds
- Saving seeds helps preserve the genetic material of our plant varieties. Within the last 100 years, we’ve lost over half of the varieties we used to have.
- Saving seeds will give you crops that are better adapted to your specific environment and growing season. You’ll be collecting seeds from the plants/varieties that thrived. It gives you a lot of control over what grows in your yard.
- It saves money.
- It’s easy to share and trade seeds with others.
- Save seeds from heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. An heirloom variety is one that has been passed down within a family for 50 years or more. Open-pollinated is simply a plant that has pollinated by itself or its type. Both will give you crops true to the original plant.
- If you’re serious about saving seeds, you’ll need to take steps to avoid cross-pollination, which will produce hybrids! Seeds from hybrid plants will not give you the same crop as the original plant. In fact, seeds saved from many hybrid tomato varieties grow cherry tomatoes! Once plant breeders hybridize something, anything in the genetic chain can come up in a crop.
- If you live near large commercial farms that grow soybeans, alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, or sugar beets, there’s a very good chance those crops are GMO. There’s a possibility that cross-pollination could occur. However, the seeds that are available to the consumer are not GMO; GMO seeds are currently only available to farmers.
- If you intend to save seeds from specific plants, it will take some planning to avoid cross-pollination since bees, insects, and other pollinators, including wind! carry pollen from blossom to blossom. Read more about preventing cross-pollination.
- You can avoid cross-pollination by placing small organza gift bags over the blooms you want to protect and hand pollinate. These are nice because they’re reusable, and you can use the drawstrings to tighten the bag over the plant.
- Hand pollinate early in the morning while the pollen is still visible. Female flowers are only open once.
- Know what your neighbors are growing, if possible. Some plants, such as carrots, are in danger of cross-pollination if other carrots are being grown within just a mile!
- To physically collect seeds, know that some seeds are harvested dry by letting the plant go to seed, while others, such as tomato seeds, are harvested wet.
- Dry harvest seeds from plants such as onion, beans, basil, carrots, and others that produce the seeds in pods or husks. Make sure the seeds are completely dry — I check to see if the pods “crackle.” Then, remove the seeds, shake off any chaff, and store them.
- To save basil seeds, wait until at least half of the seed stalk has turned brown. Then snip the stalk off, put it in a bag and bring it inside for the seeds to dry.
- Wet harvest seeds from tomatoes, pumpkins, eggplant, and squash by washing the seeds and allowing them to dry completely.
- Save only the very biggest seeds from the plants that thrived best.
- Keep saved seeds at a stable temperature in a cool, dark, and dry place. The vegetable crisper drawer in your refrigerator is a good location but do keep the seeds there since a consistent temperature is the most important variable for maintaining seed viability.
- Degradation of viability begins at around 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. You can test your seeds with an easy method explained below.
- Storing seeds in the freezer is an option for very long-term storage.
- Use paper envelopes for short-term storage.
- Place the paper envelopes in small jars or Ziploc freezer bags. Do NOT vacuum seal or use oxygen absorbers.
- Saved seeds will retain their best viability for 1-3 years. After that, there will be a gradual decline in their viability rate.
- Seeds may germinate, but that does not mean the plant will thrive.
- The easiest plants from which to save seeds are peas, beans, lettuce, and peppers. They self-pollinate most of the time. To be on the safe side, plant one variety in the front yard and a second variety in the back to avoid the possibility of cross-pollination.
- Save seeds from peppers by simply removing them from the pepper once it’s fully mature. (Bell peppers turn red when mature.) Put the seeds in a jar with water and shake the jar for a minute or two. Good seeds will sink to the bottom; seeds not worth saving will float on top. Throw those away and dry the good seeds.
- If you’re growing both hot and not-hot peppers, “hot” is a dominant trait! If Scotch bonnet peppers are grown near bell peppers, and any cross-pollination happens, your bells will be HOT. Plant hot varieties in the back yard, not-hot varieties in the front, or just far away from each other on your property.
- Coordinate with friends when it comes time to plan your gardens. Since serious seed savers know they have to separate varieties in almost every case, plan who will grow what, and then share your saved seeds. This might be a good solution for suburban homesteaders who don’t have the space to keep enough distance between different varieties.
Testing Your Stored Seeds
This simple process allows you to test your stored seeds’ viability and germination rate.
First, take ten seeds of the same variety and lay them on a moistened paper towel.
Next, fold the towel in half so the seeds are covered.
Finally, check on the seeds each day and keep the paper towel moist. If, after several days, five seeds have sprouted, you can assume that the seed packet has a germination rate of about 50%. Or, if two seeds have sprouted, it’s 20%, and so on.
It will be up to you to decide when a germination rate is too low to bother with.
Keep in mind that heat and moisture are the enemies of seeds. It’s important to keep seeds in a cool, dry place if you’re storing them for the future.
For more information, these resources are very comprehensive:
- The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert E. Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough
- Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
Increase your self-sufficiency by learning how to save seed. You increase your food security, reduce your reliance on outside sources, and have a small impact on the biodiversity of our food supply.
What is your experience with saving seed from your garden?
This article has been updated.